After our recent poll question I asked a good friend of mine, Gabe Vistica, to write something up on the wonderful world of Geocaching. 66% of you had no idea what it was. So I thank Gabe for the following info. This is part two of two. Enjoy, and if you happen to start GeoCaching please let me know about your experience.
-Justin Flores (Star 92.7 Morning Show)
Gabe, take it away….
Welcome to part two of a two-part article on the global sport/phenomenon that is geocaching. Since this is clearly labeled as part TWO, I am going to assume that you have read the first part and just jump right in.
To place or find a geocache, a geocacher must have an account on one of several websites that keep track of geocaches placed all over the world. The largest, and most popular, of these listing websites is Geocaching.com. To keep things simple, I will simply use Geocaching.com as my listing website in this article. It is worth noting that all the listing websites I have seen offer a free membership. Geocaching is now, and should always remain, free. However, some websites also offer paid memberships, which include access to “premium features” such as advanced and automated searches. Such memberships are generally less than $5 per month; highly affordable, even in this economy.
A geocacher must also have a GPS unit. Without one, it is extremely hard to pinpoint your location with enough precision to find a geocache. You can get a decent GPS unit for under $100. GPS units designed for use in cars are not very good for geocaching, as they were designed to figure out what road you are on, not your precise latitude and longitude. Because the new iPhones have a GPS built in (and thanks to a new app from Geocaching.com), it is actually possible to go geocaching using only your iPhone, so if you have a newer model, you don’t even need to buy a GPS!
Finding a Geocache
When a geocacher decides to find a geocache, they go look up cache listings on Geocaching.com. They can look up a specific geocache listing, or they can search for geocaches in a specific area; for example, within 5 miles of their house.
Once they have found the listing for the cache (or caches) they want to find, they can write down the information or print it out. They put the latitude and longitude, or “coordinates”, of the geocache into their GPS, and start trying to get there. That isn’t always as easy as it sounds; just going straight to where the geocache is doesn’t always work. You generally can’t see a big hill, or a ravine, on your GPS screen, so you have to use your head to get from Point A to Point B. This can involve hiking around the long way, driving to the other side of the canyon, or maybe jumping over that mud puddle.
After the geocacher gets close to where the GPS says the cache is hidden, it’s time to get their brain out again! Because the GPS system is still only accurate to 10-20 feet (due to technical issues, not the military this time), when a geocacher gets close they have to stop looking at their GPS’ screen and start looking for likely hiding spots, based on the size of the container. Depending on the difficulty of the cache, they could be looking for an ammo can in a stump, or maybe a Tupperware container painted in a camouflage pattern, with fake (or real) twigs and leaves attached to it, maybe even in the bush the twigs came from.
Once the cache is found, it’s time to open it! Pop the lid off and “WHAT’S THIS?!” It’s got toys from a McDonald’s Happy Meal in it! Those little useless trinkets are known as “swag” (think pirate loot!), and some geocachers like to trade them around from geocache to geocache. There are just two rules: If you take something try to leave something, and if you DO leave something, try to leave something that you think is worth about as much, or more, than what you took out. Geocaching is a family sport, so you should never leave things like knives or fireworks in a geocache.
You should also never leave food (Dave Ulmer hadn’t figured this out yet). Animals have much better noses than we humans do; when there’s food (or scented candles) in a geocache, they can smell it, and they will rip the cache apart to get to it. One time, a geocache was ripped open by a bear, all because someone had left some mint-flavored dental floss! There’s also the logbook; never forget to sign the logbook! That’s the proof that the geocacher was there and found the cache!
After the geocacher gets back home, it’s time to log that find! They get back on Geocaching.com, go to the listing of the cache they found, and click the “Log a find” button. They write a little (or big) story about the journey there, trying to find the geocache, and maybe even the journey back! Once they submit their log, the website updates their numbers so that in a year or two, the geocacher doesn’t decide to go find that cache again, not realizing they already found it. The log is also available for other geocachers to read, so they can be aware of stuff to watch out for, like a soggy logbook, or that patch of poison ivy 10 feet away that looks like a really good hiding spot.
Hiding a Geocache
When a geocache is hidden, the geocacher that is hiding it must consider a few things before hiding it. First, they must ensure that the spot is either on public land, or that they have specific permission from the landowner to place the cache there. Sometimes, geocachers forget that they need to do this, and it causes problems. Also, because so many of our National Parks have very delicate areas right next to the trails, the National Park Service does not allow any physical geocaches to be placed inside park boundaries.
Second, they must make sure that the spot they chose is not near a potential terrorist target, such as in an airport or under a bridge. Several geocachers have not thought their cache locations through very well, and people have called the police because the geocache looked like one of those “suspicious packages” that you hear about on the news every few months. Third, they must make sure that there are no other geocaches within about 500 feet. This is to ensure that nobody finds the new cache when searching for the old one, or vice-versa. Fourth, the cache hide must meet the rest of the “Geocaching Guidelines”. These ARE only guidelines, but exceptions are very rare, as most of the guidelines are based on common sense. (If you want to read the guidelines, you can find them on Geocaching.com, under “hide and seek a cache”.)
Once the geocacher has put the container in its hiding spot, they use their GPS to find out what the latitude and longitude of the container are. Then they go home (or get out their iPhone), go to Geocaching.com, and create a cache listing. They enter the coordinates of the container, a basic description of its surroundings (so other geocachers know they’re in the right place), and, if they want to, a small hint. When other geocachers look at the listing, they will not be able to read the hint just by looking at it. When a hint is given for a geocache, the website automatically encrypts it. The reason the hints are encrypted is that some people don’t want to accidentally read it, but if they do, using ROT13 makes it very easy to decrypt. With ROT13, A = N, B = O, C = P, and so on. This method is very easy to use because when A = N, N = A, so you don’t have to think backwards when you want to decrypt the hint. Like I said, it’s not to stop you from reading it, just reading it by accident.
Once the geocacher that hid the cache finishes the listing, it is looked over by a volunteer cache reviewer. Every geocache placed (with the exception of the first few ever made) has been reviewed by a volunteer. These reviewers look over the listing to make sure that there are no glaringly obvious spelling mistakes, that the geocache isn’t on National Park land (see consideration #1 a few paragraphs back), and that the coordinates aren’t pointing people to the middle of a lake. They also check that the geocache and its listing aren’t violating the guidelines. If it doesn’t, the reviewer will contact the person that hid the cache and try to resolve the problems. Once in a while, though, a resolution isn’t possible and the listing is never published. When the listing is published, though, it immediately becomes publicly accessible, and other geocachers can go look for the geocache.
Wait a minute! The end?! That’s not the end! There’s more! Must… write… more…!
Seriously, though, there is quite a bit that I didn’t even mention. I guess you’ll just have to find it out for yourself.
If you have any questions about geocaching, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org